Although it gets off to a decent start, this “Time Machine” breaks down when it gets to the distant future, which in this case isn’t a good place to be stranded. Often called the first genuine science-fiction novel, H.G. Wells’ 1894 classic provides unlimited opportunities in the anything-is-possible world of effects-driven, CGI-oriented popular movies. But despite fine production values and some smarts that surface here and there, this ambitious DreamWorks/Warner Bros. co-venture devolves creatively as it advances dramatically, ending in generically familiar territory that’s far closer to that of last year’s lamentable “Planet of the Apes” remake than anyone might have wished. Still, the central commercial elements of time travel, flashy effects, monster villains, star Guy Pearce and boomer nostalgia for the 1960 George Pal version will probably spur solid B.O. at home and abroad.
That the present film’s director, Simon Wells, is the great-grandson of the visionary author H.G. Wells has in no way served to guarantee that the picture is faithful to the source novel. To the contrary, John Logan’s script, while preserving the book’s guiding conceptual notions, takes great liberties otherwise, transferring the initial setting from London to New York, giving the time traveler a personal tragedy that motivates his desire to move back in time, and entirely draining the political subtext from the futuristic conflict of the mellow above-ground Eloi and their subterranean predators, the cannibalistic Morlocks.
Despite their expository and downbeat nature, initial 25 minutes possess a measure of charm and atmosphere that misleadingly suggest the filmmakers might be on the right track. Early scenes of Columbia U. science professor Alexander Hartdegen (Pearce) rushing about the snowy streets of New York City, circa 1900, and meeting his lady love, Emma (Sienna Guillory, agreeably resembling a very young Jessica Lange) at a skating pond in Central Park are as redolent of Gotham period flavor as anything in “The Age of Innocence,” from the mannerly, Old World behavior of the citizens to the obvious breath emanating from the mouths of the chilly actors.
After Emma is shockingly killed by a thief, Alexander withdraws into four years of reclusiveness, which he single-mindedly devotes to designing a device that will transport him back to the fatal night so he can save Emma’s life. When fate, as in an O. Henry story, plays a terrible trick on the couple that convinces Alexander he can’t rewrite history, he decides instead to venture into the future.
First stop is 2030, a time most notably marked by the info that the moon has been colonized and by the presence, at the library, of a spirited hologram (Orlando Jones, quite amusing) who reps a one-stop repository of all human knowledge (including info on the origins of Wells’ novel and the existence of the Pal movie version). The warmly remembered dress shop sequence from the original, showing changing women’s fashions over time, is recreated, albeit with less charm, but Alexander’s next pit stop reveals disaster: Due to ill-advised detonations, the moon has split apart, with chunks of it pelting Manhattan (one cut sequence reportedly showed the World Trade Center being hit by large moon rocks).
Fleeing in desperation, Alexander puts his machine into overdrive, passing rapidly through long periods of arid desolation and icy waste until lurching to a stop amid lush flora and fauna in distant 802,701. Nursed back to health by a friendly native, Mara (Samantha Mumba), who, virtually alone among her people, speaks English, Alexander finds himself among the Eloi, who have been transformed from the placid, sheeplike towheads of the novel and first film into light brown-skinned jungle dwellers who live in handcrafted, cliff-hugging shells that together suggest a chic back-to-nature Polynesian compound out of “Survivor.”
The “Planet of the Apes” comparison becomes unavoidable when the Eloi are suddenly attacked by their ferocious enemies. Unlike the deadly but daylight-fearing Morlocks that previous generations have known and loved, these toothsome creatures represent a heavily retooled variation that can move as quickly as a raptor, come out whenever it wants, is afraid of nothing and even uses blow darts to subdue victims. Well executed though they are, these brutes just aren’t that creepy or original.
The unarmed Alexander instantly springs into action when Mara is carted below ground, where he has a climactic confrontation with the newly invented Uber-Morlock (Jeremy Irons in whiteface, white-haired Goth-rock mode). This centuries-old geezer, a kind of Kurtz for the ages, also speaks English, and extremely well at that, which allows him to discourse at length with the incensed but articulate Alexander. Loathsome as he is, you’ve got to feel a bit sorry for this overlord of the underworld, as it’s obviously been a long time since he’s had the pleasure of any civilized company. Action climax is tiresomely implausible and overblown.
The closer it hews to contemporary norms and expectations of what a big-budget, effects-oriented blockbuster should be, the more the picture disappoints with the feeling of opportunities lost. With the exception of Jones’ historical riffs, Logan’s script lacks wit; surely Alexander’s passages through time could have been adorned with humorous inventions and incongruities. Shorn of its political elements, tale also lacks a philosophical dimension, shameful in a piece that presents such potential for same.
On the performance side, Pearce’s initial colorings of Alexander as an appealingly obsessed eccentric and crestfallen romantic all give way after his vault into the future, where he becomes nothing more than a standard-issue action hero. (Curiously, Pearce’s predecessor in the time traveler role, Rod Taylor, was also Australian.)
Emerging Irish-born pop star Mumba shows some spunk as his Eloi savior (character’s lively little brother is played by Mumba’s actual brother, Omero), while Mark Addy is genial as Alexander’s best friend, a role played in the 1960 film by Alan Young, who appears briefly here as a flower vendor.
Although the design of the time machine follows in the same brass-and-glass line of the original version, contraption is predictably grander now. But one would have liked a little time just to behold it in all its intricate and imaginative detail before it begins whirring off to its various destinations. Other effects are accomplished but lacking in creative visions that take the breath away or make one ponder, even for a moment, the fate of the world.
Score by erstwhile Hans Zimmer collaborator Klaus Badelt is very Hans Zimmerish. A prominent end credits thank you is given to Gore Verbinski, who reportedly stepped in as director for the final month of shooting after Wells, whose prior feature credit was as co-director of the animated “The Prince of Egypt,” was overcome with exhaustion.